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Distribution U: A Crash Course in Building a Support Base for Your Film

By Tom White

Distribution U, the brainchild of DIY distribution consultant Peter Broderick and new media expert Scott Kirsner, debuted in November 2009 to great acclaim as a comprehensive primer to getting your doc out there, using the social media tools wisely and creatively to do so. (For Tamara Krinsky's report on the 2009 Distribution U, click here.) Distribution U returned this year, with a New York edition added to complement its Los Angeles edition.

The daylong seminar at UCLA (of which this writer could only attend half of the offerings) attracted a bevy of indie docmakers, as well as a legion of experts and enablers to provide a steady robust diet of food for thought. I arrived in time for the "Off-the-Record" Lunchtime Conversations. Adam Chapnick, founder of Distribber, which, for a fee, helps to films in such digital outlets as iTunes, Netflix and Amazon, held court on one side of the room, proferring advice about the digital platform universe and how filmmakers can maximize revenues in that arena. The big new kid in that arena is Google TV, which basically enables users to view digitally distributed fare on one's TV monitor, using, say, an iPad as a remote to select the programs you want to see. While Hulu and a handful of networks and cablers are grousing about making their work available to Google TV users, Chapnick felt that eventually they'll fall in line.

The Sundance Institute held down two tables in separate rooms, with Cara Mertes and Rhadi Taylor of the Documentary Program hosting one table and Joseph Beyer, director of digital initiatives, hosting another. Beyer advised filmmakers to not overly involve themselves with too many social media mechanisms-ie. Website, Facebook page, Twitter account, etc.-- since each one entails its own constant maintenance and upkeep, which may preclude you from focusing on, say, long-term strategy. Try to consolidate your social media efforts to be more efficient and effective in what you do.

Following those sessions, Broderick reconvened the attendees with his presentation, "The Audience Comes First," spelling out the 21st century paradigm of the empowered filmmaker/end-user relationship. Broderick cited several models that have made their potential audiences a part of the process from the beginning. Robert Greenwald, a true pioneer whose politically charged films from the last decade helped galvanize a grassroots audience, tapped into that audience when he was trying to raise money for his film Iraq for Sale; he managed to bring in $385,000 in 20 days. When embarking on her film The Age of Stupid, director Franny Armstrong and producer Lizzie Gillett created an online investment platform, which raised $1.5 million. Broderick also cited "Robin Writes a Book," a Kickstarter campaign by author Robin Sloan, in which he stars in a witty-and effective-pitch. Not only did he raise more money than he had budgeted for, but 70 percent of his backers were strangers. Broderick cited another example of a group of Finnish filmmakers undertaking a parody of Star Trek-and appealing not only for contributions of funds, but also for creative participation. As a result, 50 percent of the footage used in the film was contributed, and the filmmakers made over 20 times their budget in DVD sales. "The best way for someone to evangelize your film is to have them creatively contribute," Broderick asserted.

Turning the discussion to crowd-funding, Broderick maintained that the main goal for undertaking a campaign is to raise awareness for your project. He cited IndieGoGo and Kickstarter as the leading entities out there for this purpose; the challenge with Kickstarter is, if you don't meet your fundraising goal within the stated timeline, you don't get any money. "It's better to aim lower," Broderick advised. "And having a deadline is good thing; people want to help you reach your goal."

As case studies, Broderick and Kirsner brought up singer/songwriter Jill Sobule, who has gone her own way with her musical career, creating and selling entirely to her fan base; and filmmaker Roberta Grossman, who has been building an audience of supporters for her work-in-progress Hava Nagila: What Is It?. Sobule, like many artists who have had a bittersweet experience with the music industry, "had to think differently. If you own more of your music, you don't have to sell as much. Think smaller." For Grossman, her previous film, Blessed Is the Match, had a $1.5 million budget-made possible in large part by three major donors-but her theatrical experience, as she put it "was ego-based." The film played in 84 Jewish film festivals, and was short-listed for the Academy Award. Then she spent $90,000 on a service distribution deal-and made only $10,000. She did make $60,000 in semi-theatrical screenings, charging a $1,000 honorarium and selling DVDs at each site. For Hava Nagila, she raised $13,834 in her first IndieGoGo campaign-although she had no success with foundations or even the supporters of Blessed Is the Match. "I wasn't sure this was a movie until the online response," she admitted. But the fact that the response came from an international audience, "deepened my commitment to making the film." She also added that some of the donors from Blessed Is the Match are now more willing to fund the post-production phase.

One audience member asked about "request fatigue"-with so many crowdfunding campaigns out there, how do filmmakers keep the fundraising going? "The next campaign has to be done differently," Grossman admitted. Then she advised, "Get partners with different e-mail lists and keep expanding your audience."

With its dynamic cadre of experts to complement the bone fides of Broderick and Kirsner, Distribution U offers a hefty helping of sage advice, networking opportunities, tools, inspiration and encouragement. Doing It Yourself in an empowered community such as this one needn't mean going it alone.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary.